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Saturday, June 12, 1999 Off the beaten track

Memories of boat people

By Andrew Sia

EXPLORING Pulau Bidong in Terengganu is like rummaging through the flotsam of the Vietnam War. For here, in 1975, after the fall of Saigon, a camp was established to accommodate the "boat people"--the waves of refugees who braved the high seas and pitiless pirates in rickety, overcrowded boats to flee, initially, from political persecution and, later, from economic hardship. 252,452 refugees passed through this little 260ha island until it was closed in 1991.

In those 16 years, a bustling "mini Saigon" developed.

A whole network of Vietnamese sundry shops, tailors, hair salons, pawn brokers, bakeries and even acupuncturists flourished.

Star Online Pix alt
These stone tablets on Pulau Bidong honouring those who died at sea before reaching Malaysian shores are a poignant reminder of the plight of Vietnamese boat people.

Wheeling and dealing in real estate thrived. Refugees leaving sold their houses to newcomers for anything from US$20 to US$350 depending on the location and facilities.

Indeed, though Pulau Bidong was only 20 nautical miles from the mainland at Kampung Merang, it might as well have been a world away.

The camp was sponsored by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) while the Malaysian Red Crescent Society (MRCS) was responsible for the daily operations.

Refugees worked as labourers or office staff and were paid in food parcels. This was the "currency", which underpinned the whole "economy" on the island.

It also facilitated unofficial links with ordinary Malaysians. Although the island was declared off-limits to locals in 1978, some local fishermen still managed to smuggle goods to the refugees at vastly inflated prices (a business estimated at between RM8mil and RM13mil).

Under cover of darkness, the more enterprising Vietnamese used to swim out (or float out in homemade rafts) to meet the fishermen in the open sea. This was not without its dangers as some 35 people were reported missing in 1979, for instance.

Given this dramatic backdrop, when Ping Anchorage, a tour operator in Kuala Terengganu, offered its latest Bidong Plus package, our curiosity was more than piqued.

As there was no accommodation on the island, chief photographer Tan Hong Tatt and I had to stay in neighbouring Pulau Redang.

We, and four others who had taken up the package, were more than entertained by our ever affable Cantonese-speaking tour leader Anwar Abu Bakar, alias Ah Wah (Anwar is transliterated as onn wah in that dialect).

Our group departed from Merang via the "adventure jetty"--a good old fishermen's construction of planks and poles in a picturesque river--as the multi-million ringgit wharves and artificial wavebreakers were closed yet again due to siltation.

The humble start belied the power of the speedboats. We practically flew over the waves like one of those Mild Seven Seafarers Club ads, sea spray, prancing boat and all.

Star Online Pix alt
Even folks who can't swim can go snorkelling.

"It's like a roller coaster. This is much better than flying in straight to Redang," enthused Albert Kan, a sales executive.

We arrived at the Redang Reef Resort in half an hour flat. Despite my having gone to the east coast countless times, the stunningly translucent aquamarine waters here did not fail to delight.

Creature comforts may not be of the five-star variety but the essentials are all in place. Apart from air-conditioned rooms and three meals a day, self-service bread and Milo are available 24 hours a day. The latter will be of inestimable value for those sleepless city folk who wish to partake of nocturnal crab catching, star gazing or, more down-to-earth, Astro channel surfing.

Those who can't seem to get away from it all will, undoubtedly, be impressed that mobile phone numbers beginning with 010, 011, 012, 018 and 019 have reception on this part of the island.

After checking in, it was time for us to speedboat over to Bidong. (Normally, those who take up this three day/two night package will have a full day there on the second day.) We reached the island within 15 minutes and, from a distance, it looked exactly like any one of Terengganu's other offshore islands.

It was only when we pulled up close that we saw the ruins of the once bustling camp. The wooden jetty was in its last throes while most of the refugee shacks had been overwhelmed with secondary jungle.

A few Rela (Home Guard) members were on duty, their quarters the only signs of habitation on the island.

Being from a newspaper, we were not allowed to take pictures of anything while on the island. Which top secret nuclear research lab were they guarding so zealously?

Apparently, it seems that a previous magazine, one suspects an irredeemably evil foreign one, had been there some time ago and written an adverse story about camp conditions.

Nevertheless, the Rela members were very accommodating--"we're just doing our job"--and took us around for a tour of the island.

We filed past the former clinic and generator room. Old Vietnamese signboards were still on display, advising the proper procedures for machinery handling to long departed refugee workers.

But the most melancholic part of Pulau Bidong was the memorial outside the church.

Here, on a mass of cement shaped as a ship's bow, dozens of stone tablets commemorate all those who didn't make it over.

Though refugees could reach Terengganu within days, the slow overcrowded boats were often attacked by pirates who, in ascending order of severity, robbed, raped, maimed and killed.

The language on the plaques is Vietnamese, but one common word makes it through the cultural barrier, "Maria".

Indeed, outside of the Philippines, Vietnam was Asia's most Catholic country due to the French colonial experience.

The zinc sheeted wooden frame church is, quite remarkably, still standing and rows of empty pews continue to gaze lifelessly towards the front pulpit.

Next to the church is a Vietnamese temple with the remnants of a Kwan Yin deity outside.

Inside, signs in Vietnamese and Chinese tell the story of political persecution back home and the perilous journey here (fortunately, a fellow traveller could read one of the signs).

They also thanked the Malaysian government, the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) and the MRCS (Malaysian Red Crescent Society) for help in constructing the temple.

Since Malaysia "recovered" the island in 1991, various development plans have been bandied about.

In 1992, a special redevelopment committee set up under Dr Abdul Wahab Ngah proposed the preservation of the historical sites and buildings "should any boat people like to come back to see their past".

Then in 1996, Datuk Aziz Awang, the former chairman of the State Tourism, Arts and Culture Committee revealed that there were plans to build a RM100mil five-star hotel there.

And last August, Mentri Besar Tan Sri Wan Mokhtar Ahmad announced plans to build a museum there, after the economy recovers, in memory of the boat people.

Most of the buildings here were built of wood, with many appearing to be on the verge of collapse or hopelessly overgrown, so any "museum" would have to be entirely reconstructed.

It can thus be argued that it would be best to see Pulau Bidong now, to get a feel of the original refugee camp, before development dolls the place up beyond recognition.

We returned to Pulau Redang by late evening, mystified and reminded of our own mortality.

The next two days were spent living the good life. There were snorkelling trips to the Redang Marine Park headquarters and to a nearby bay. Though there was much dead coral, there were also many good patches which made for fine viewing of technicolour fish.

Our chief photographer, who went snorkelling for the first time in his life, was ebullient:

"I was amazed with the huge sek pan at the marine park. And right next to the resort, we can see so many colourful fish. We don't even have to walk two metres.

"I'm like an immigrant fresh off the ship from China. Never gone snorkelling before. The last time in Tioman, I wanted to try but the tour guide said if I cannot really swim I shouldn't.

"But here the staff helped me. I was given a tyre tube and they brought me along to see the fish. I think that kind of service is important."

Jasmine Tan, a secretary, liked the resort because of the excellent "homecooked" food and because its location at the end of Pasir Panjang beach offered more privacy.

"I've been to Langkawi and Tioman before but I can say that Redang is the best because the water is clearer."

For further information call Ping Anchorage at 09-626 2020.


Copyright 1999. Star Publications (Malaysia) Bhd. (Co No. 10894-D)
All rights reserved.


 

Ping Anchorage Travel & Tours Sdn. Bhd.
77A, Jalan Sultan Sulaiman, 20000 Kuala Terengganu, Terengganu, Malaysia.
Tel : (609) 626 2020  Fax : (609) 626 2022 / 622 8093 E-mail :
patrvl@tm.net.my
(KPL/LN2117 / 209874W)

 

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